Band lineups change. Sometimes egos get in the way and musicians quit in acrimony and bitterness. Sometimes guitar players simply want a change of pace. And other times, tragic circumstances force difficult decisions. Such was the case in late 1982 when a young San Francisco Bay Area guitarist was invited to audition for a pretty big band. Originally, he thought the outlandish offer had to be a practical joke. However, after woodshedding on 18 songs for two days, he flew to New York and made his way to a luxurious suite in the Helmsley Palace Hotel. He played some of rock music’s most famous riffs on a red ’62 Fender Stratocaster—without an amp—while a British heavy metal legend sat cross-legged on the floor, watching his intricate solo. Then the Brit jumped up and hugged him.

And that’s how Brad Gillis assumed the guitar duties for Ozzy Osbourne after the legendary Randy Rhoads perished in a tragic plane crash.

Brad Gillis onstage with Night Ranger and his battered ’62 Strat, which is equipped with an original Floyd Rose tremolo. Gillis first found fame when he was tapped to replace Randy Rhoads in Ozzy Osbourne’s band.

There are countless stories like Gillis’, stories of previously unknown players getting their chance at some measure of fame and glory while filling the shoes of better-known guitarists who’ve moved on for one reason or another. But while these opportunities are in many ways a dream come true for the replacement axe men, their high-profile new gigs aren’t without their unique and sometimes frustrating challenges. To get a sampling of those challenges, we spoke with Gillis, Guns N’ Roses’ Ron Thal, Kiss’ Tommy Thayer, L.A. Guns’ Stacey Blades, and Dokken’s Jon Levin.

Lacing Up
Ozzy initially tapped Irish guitarist Bernie Tormé to fill in after Rhoads’ death, but his sound and style was deemed too different for the Prince of Darkness. After a few days of observing Tormé perform with the band, Gillis plugged in and took over.

“I had never played with the band, never rehearsed with the band, and there was my first show—sold out, to 8000 people in Binghamton, New York,” Gillis recalls. Today, he’s preparing for a big summer tour with his band Night Ranger, which is perhaps best known for the huge 1984 power ballad “Sister Christian.” Gillis says last year was one of the band’s best ever and that they anticipate building on that success with as many as 70 tour stops in 2010. But Gillis originally cemented his shredder reputation with that challenging stint with Ozzy back in ’82.

Whenever a new guitarist comes in and has to play classic tunes, the fans sit back and start speculating. Will the new guy totally change everything in an attempt to put his own stamp on things? Or, will he simply mimic the original runs and bring nothing new or different to the table? For the musician in question, it can seem like an unwinnable situation.

“It was quite a trying experience and the first two weeks were really tough for me,” Gillis says. “A lot of the fans weren’t expecting me and were giving me that look like, ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ I had guys in the audience flipping me off, holding up ‘Randy Rhoads lives’ signs, and just giving me that look.”

Stacey Blades of L.A. Guns has the difficult task of performing in a band that carries his predecessor’s name. He joined the group in 2003 and set out to win over fans by performing the songs and solos as they were originally recorded by Tracii Guns. His choice to honor the original music was not only out of respect for the audience but also his own personal tastes and interests.

“As a fan of the band, I wanted to learn those leads like they are on the record,” Blades says. “I wouldn’t play it any other way.” He says that after seven years in the band, he seldom receives negative feedback from concertgoers today. Rarely, a person shows up to a gig expecting the original Tracii Guns, but Blades strives to win them over.

“I had to tell a guy in Laughlin, Nevada, that I’m not Tracii,” Blades says of a recent gig. “He got this confused look on his face and said, ‘You still rock, bro.’”

If Blades rocks in a band named for the guy he replaced, at least he gets to wear his own footwear. For current Kiss guitarist Tommy Thayer, the adage about filling in someone’s shoes is literal. After working in various capacities with the Kiss organization for years, Thayer officially assumed the role of the Spaceman in 2003 when he donned the costume made famous by original guitarist Ace Frehley. After a few smaller gigs the preceding year, Thayer’s first real show with the face-painted rockers was with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Australia. That concert involved 70 additional musicians and different song arrangements, and it was also recorded for CD and DVD releases.

“It was a really diverse set with a lot going on,” Thayer says. “That was playing on my nerves more than anything, but I got through it and it turned out just great.”

Since that initial introduction in the silver platform boots, Thayer has performed hundreds of Kiss gigs across the globe. In some ways, he is arguably one of the most controversial guitar players in rock music. Any reference to him and Kiss on the Internet elicits a stream of comments from people who either criticize the slightest difference between his work and Frehley’s or write him off as a carbon copy.

“I have so much respect for that guy,” says Guns N’ Roses guitarist Ron Thal. “Because to be in the most legendary band, to be in such a situation, and have the strength of character he must have to be able to do it.”

Ultimately, all replacement rockers have to soldier on, shred as much as possible, and just keep working to win over the audience. Ignoring internet trolls, playing as well as possible, and remaining committed to the gig are the prescribed tasks for guitarists taking over for a departed legend.

“It’s going to be tough at first, and you’ve got to have thick skin and take your lumps,” says Thal. “You have to stop reading your email and stop Googling your name. My advice is always, ‘Don’t do it for the people that don’t like it. You have to do it for the people who do.’”

Dedication pays off, says Jon Levin, who cranks out sizzling leads associated with George Lynch for Dokken. “With time and persistence, you can change people’s minds and win over fans.”

It’s a Rock Thing
The argument can be made that the audience’s obsession over the guitarist in the spotlight and his approach to trademark tunes is uniquely tied to the rock and heavy metal genres. Few hepcats in a jazz club are going to sneer, “He didn’t play that Miles Davis solo note.”

And no classical fan is going to go the other direction and accuse the third chair violin player of being a Paganini clone.

“It’s so bombastic and there are so many variations, as far as rock artists go. I think it’s the whole package thing,” Blades says in regards to the passion with which fans view their favorite guitarists. “That’s why people hold it so dear and debate band combinations as opposed to a symphony or orchestra.” Few things are more hotly debated among fans than replacement band members.

An orchestra can have as many as 100 musicians, all dressed similarly, all sitting down, partially hidden behind music stands and instruments. And jazz outfits frequently feature guest artists, change lineups, and have other musicians jam on different songs.

“In rock, you have a more personal connection to the artists and who the artist is as a person,” Thal says. “It’s about the person. And because of that, you start feeling a relationship and a loyalty to that person.” The music and the licks are connected to that guitarist, the image of them performing is burned into the fans’ memories.

Thayer expresses a similar sentiment. “It just seems that, with rock and roll bands in particular, people just seem to care that much more about what goes on,” he says. “It’s a very emotional thing, really. It’s almost a religious thing or a cultish thing to a lot of people, and they live their lives by a band like Kiss. I can understand why people feel that way.”