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.
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?
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.
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