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more... ArtistsGigging AdviceHow-TosGuitaristsBrad GillisJon LevinRon ThalStacey BladesTommy Thayer

Filling Big Shoes: What It’s Like to Have to Shred Someone Else’s Licks

LEFT: Ron Thal took on the daunting task of filling Slash’s shoes in Guns N’ Roses. Photo by Chad Batka MIDDLE: Jon Levin and his Charvel now take care of the duties once executed by George “Mr. Scary” Lynch in Dokken. Photo by Jeff Findley RIGHT: Former Ace Frehley guitar tech Tommy Thayer now wears the Spaceman outfit onstage with Kiss. Photo by Glenn La Ferman

To Cop or Not to Cop? That is the Question
In spite of the audience’s fear that new axe slingers will trash all the licks and leads they hold dear, the consensus amongst replacement guitar players themselves seems to be that they should remain true to the original recordings.

“Primarily, the approach I take is to play the songs the way they were originally written and recorded,” says Thayer as Kiss prepares to depart for a sold-out European tour.

“That’s the way I like it and the way I want to hear it if I’m seeing another band that had a new guitarist come in.”

While most the guitar players we talked to for this article prefer to honor the originals, each musician does have varying degrees of alterations they’re willing to make. In short, it’s about being respectful without being slavish. A few slight changes are acceptable, if judiciously applied.

“You want to show respect to the song as it was written, as it was successful, in the way people have grown to love the song,” says Thal. However, there may be room within the context of the show for the guitarist to introduce some differences. “If it’s ‘Paradise City,’ you’re certainly not going to change that main hook. But when it comes to the long solo at the end of the song—not the part that people are humming and singing—it’s okay to take some liberties.”

During his tenure with Ozzy, Gillis found a few opportunities during the show to stretch out, too. “I wanted to interject a little of my style here and there throughout the set,” Gillis says. “I tried to stay close to Randy’s classic solos, but then each of us in the band had our individual solos every night, so I was able to do my whammy-bar thing.”

Interestingly enough, not one single guitarist interviewed for this article was told to play a certain way. When they auditioned and during their tenure, they were largely given free reign.

“No, not once did Axl Rose ever tell me how to play,” says Thal.

“I was never told what I had to play,” Gillis agrees.

“Don [Dokken] never told me what to do in any way, shape, or form,” says Levin.

Rethinking Rigs As guitarists strive to settle into an established band and replace an icon, they must make a choice about changing their equipment or sticking with what they’ve previously used.

For Thal, his initial introduction into Guns N’ Roses required a few equipment changes. Famous for the unique Vigier guitars he uses at his solo shows, Thal had to add some classic gear when he hit the stage with GNR.

“When I switched my gear up and got things closer to what they should be, it made a big difference to people,” Thal says. “Now, I get no complaints—like in the past when I was using a guitar shaped like a foot.”

Other musicians require less alteration. Levin, a Charvel endorsee, has always played so-called “super Strats” that provide tones and capabilities like those associated with George Lynch. Blades favors B.C. Rich guitars that fall in line with the classic Sunset Strip sleaze-metal tones.

Thayer already played Gibson Les Pauls, just as Frehley did, so none of his gear needed to be updated. However, a select few songs required alterations because of equipment differences. He points to songs from the ’80s, when former Kiss guitarists Vinnie Vincent and Bruce Kulick were employing new techniques and new instruments, as examples of tunes that required adjustment.

“We’re talking about Charvels and Jacksons with a whammy bar,” Thayer says. “There’s a little disconnect between that and the classic approach to Kiss, which is what we are today. Sometimes I do have to adapt it to playing a Les Paul as opposed to a Strat with a Floyd Rose.”

A Chance to Make a Mark
As replacement guitarists tour the country playing their predecessor’s tunes—even when it’s been over the course of many years—it can still feel like a temporary gig. But the opportunity to record with the band offers a chance to solidify their standing.

Up until the recording and release of Guns N’ Roses’ 2008 album, Chinese Democracy, Thal says he felt like he was “just being a gracious guest.” It wasn’t so much that fellow band members viewed the guitarist in a less-than-permanent way, but rather the public’s attitude.

“You could be best friends with the guys in the band and do everything that a band does, but for the whole world, truth is perception,” he says. “If the world perceives you as just some fill-in guy, it’s tough to continually disassociate yourself with everybody’s reality and live in your own. But once the album came out, it’s like, ‘All right—this is mine now!’”

For Thayer, the release of Sonic Boom, the first Kiss studio album in a decade, marked a milestone in his own identity as a musician.

“It’s a big stepping stone for me, in terms of my place in the band and my identity,” he says. “This last year and this year—coming into an era of me writing and singing and playing guitar on a new Kiss record that’s been received so well— that’s been a great step for me.”

A Walk to Remember
The musicians quoted here give the impression that playing someone else’s music isn’t as big a deal as the fans imagine. While message boards may light up with arguments over the new guy’s approach to the classic material or whether someone will fit in with the band, the guitarists simply play.

“I don’t need to have written something or recorded something to enjoy playing it,” says Thal. “I enjoy making music with people, and it doesn’t matter where the music originated. We’re doing it right now, and we’re having a great time—and people are having a great time with us.”

Filling Big Shoes
You may not have to replace an icon on short notice. But joining an established band in your hometown can still be a stressful situation. Here are some tips to help you pull it off.

• Be prepared for the audition. Know the music, be confident—but not cocky— and focus on establishing chemistry with the other band members. “Everybody plays guitar well to a certain degree, but I think the personalities, how you get along, and how you work together and interact is huge,” says Thayer. “People underestimate that.”

• Ease your way into the classic tunes. The fans will expect to hear the songs played a certain way. Do it that way at first. Over time, you can stretch out a bit. “At least in the beginning, don’t shake things up too much,” says Levin. “As you get more established, you can start deviating more and more.”

• Find a mentor or confidante in the band. Gillis explains, “I would go to [bassist] Rudy Sarzo and he’d say, ‘You’re doing a great job, don’t worry about it.’”

• Plow forward. Be confident in your work and accept the fact that you’re not going to please everyone. “If someone doesn’t like it, it just means that it’s not for them,” says Thal. “It’s not their taste and they can go and find something else that they like.”
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