All images courtesy of Ryan Spencer Cook/Credit: Bob Dehart
He’s shredded with the likes of Hair of the Dog and Gene Simmons, but in the present day, Ryan Spencer Cook finds himself a key cog in a revitalized Ace Frehley’s band.
By Andrew Daly
Few players exude the level of joy, professionalism, and love for their craft as guitarist Ryan Spencer Cook.
Some know him through his work with the uber-underrated Hair of the Dog; others first experienced Cook’s fine playing via the KISS Kruise with his band Big Rock Show. But Cook’s biggest claim to fame may be through his work as an essential member of Gene Simmons’ and Ace Frehley’s bands.
With Simmons placing his solo band on hold, Cook has been playing nearly exclusively with Frehley’s band, handily covering the quintessential work of past Frehley cohorts Paul Stanley, Tod Howarth, and Richie Scarlet.
To say that Cook and his bandmates have been a revelation for Frehley would be an understatement, seeing as the veteran guitarist appears reinvigorated by the trio of Cook, Jeremy Asbrock, and Philip Shouse, along with drummer Matt Starr.
As he continues to live out his dream, Cook took a moment with me to recollect his love affair with both the guitar and KISS, the formation of Hair of the Dog, working with Gene Simmons and Ace Frehley, and more.
What first attracted you to the guitar?
Oh, man. Honestly, everything. Everything from its shape to the finite details on an electric guitar, such as the hardware, pickups, toggle switches, paint jobs, and most importantly, the many sounds one could get while playing. I was truly enamored with it. At a very young age, I was obsessed with Tom Scholz’s tone on Boston’s “Don’t Look Back,” and used to say to myself, “How does he get it to sound like that!?” [Laughs].
What was the first record you remember hearing?
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down On The Corner.” It was playing on the radio in my dad’s truck as I stood next to him on the truck’s bench seat as he drove; it was the ’70s. Anyway, I remember the song’s simple yet catchy guitar line as well as its fantastic melody. I was hooked.
Describe the scene you grew up in and how that shaped your musical outlook.
I grew up in Topeka, KS, which happens to be the state capital. We were more of a large town than a big, culturally diverse city. We had a very small but thriving music scene, and pretty much every bar and nightclub in the city had live music. And our high schools were filled with teenagers starting their own bands, including yours truly. [Laughs]. It was an exciting time for me, meeting new kids that shared a mutual love for the same music that I cared about.
Are you self-taught, or did you take lessons?
It’s interesting. From ages 10 to12, I did take lessons at a couple of different local music stores. I was a scatterbrained kid without focus. At the time, I lacked the discipline it took to advance, and I was bored to tears with my lessons. I was being taught strictly “by the book,” and I just wasn’t putting in the necessary time. But when I turned 13 years old, my mom actually found a teacher for me that was more “my speed,” so to speak; a Rock guy that immediately taught me bar chords and bar chord shapes. I quickly picked up what he was laying down, and I was off and running. I always had a pretty good sense of melody and tone, so learning by ear was natural for me.
Can you recall your first guitar and your first gig?
My very first guitar was an inexpensive Epiphone acoustic. It was definitely a beginner model, and it was difficult to play; the strings seemed to be a mile off the fretboard. [Laughs]. My first gig was in a junior high school talent show. I was in the 9th grade, and this would be my first time performing with a band in front of a large audience. We rehearsed the same two songs for weeks, and we built an elaborate drum riser with ramps, the whole works. And while we were not very good, we were very well received, and I still remember the event with great fondness. It remains one of my favorite memories ever.
How important we’re old-school rock magazines to your musical development?
They were my everything, my window to the musical world. MTV did not enter my life until I was 15 or 16 years old, and the internet did not exist. Though I’d occasionally see music on TV via programs such as Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, things like Creem, Circus, and Hit Parader Magazine were instrumental; they were my musical CNN in print form.
Can you recount the origins of Hair of the Dog?
It started when songwriter and producer Desmond Child introduced me to a group of guys living in L.A., as he had been working with them and was helping them locate a singer. So, Des and I met in Nashville, and he suggested that I come to L.A. to meet the guys to see if there was any chemistry. As soon as I met them, we all got along famously, and I relocated to L.A. just three months later. We were militant in our approach; we rehearsed pretty much every night; we were very determined. Our first show was at a club called Mancini’s deep in the San Fernando Valley on a Tuesday night. That show was a real confidence builder because while it wasn’t perfect, it still showed that we had the goods. Now it was time to go back and woodshed. We were a work in progress that turned into a finely tuned machine.
What emotions did you feel when the band signed to Spitfire Records?
It was sheer joy. It was a feeling of major accomplishment. It was tangible proof that hard work and persistence paid off. We had begun recording long before we signed the deal; the deal was actually signed after the fact. The contract with Spitfire resulted from the sales of our self-released debut record. We had released an album almost two years prior and toured relentlessly to promote it. The sales of this CD are what got the attention of Spitfire.
Can you recall the band’s first studio sessions? Is there anything you would change about the recordings?
Of course. I listen back and think of many things I’d do differently or not do at all. That being said, I’m happy with those recordings as they are a true snapshot of our knowledge and abilities, or lack thereof, at that time. I hear them, and it reminds me of what a great time we were having.
How did you first meet Gene Simmons leading to joining his band?
I unknowingly got Gene’s attention on the first KISS Kruise. I was performing on said Kruise with my band Big Rock Show. We became wildly popular with the KISS Kruise fan base, and we would eventually perform on the first eight KISS Kruises. Each year, Gene would catch at least one or two of our shows. When he finally entertained the idea of doing a solo show, he contacted me to put together a band for him. It was a perfect fit because I know the KISS body of work so well. It’s almost like second nature, like breathing. Knowing the song catalog so well meant we would be speaking the same musical language, always.
Can you recollect your first gig with Gene?
It was a corporate event in Vancouver, Canada, where we performed in a lavish hotel ballroom. Gene was still figuring out what he wanted to do musically, so the setlist wasn’t exactly what a KISS fan might expect. Along with the KISS klassics, we were also doing songs by Wilson Pickett, Roy Head, and The Beatles. He was definitely stretching his musical legs.
How did that lead to joining Ace Frehley?
We were asked to tour Australia, and the promoter asked Ace to open the show. Rather than bring his own band, Ace asked Gene if we could be his backing band as well. Gene gave the green light, and we were on board. We would start the night performing with Ace, take a break, change clothes, and then go out a do another set with Gene. It was really a lot of fun for us, performing with two of KISS’ founding members each night. Gene knew that Gene Simmons Band would go on hiatus as he had to return to KISS for the End Of The Road Tour. He suggested to Ace that we become his band. Bam!
What challenges do you face covering the parts of Paul Stanley, Tod Howarth, and Richie Scarlet?
I look at this opportunity as more of a privilege than a challenge. I’ve known how to play most of the KISS catalog most of my life, so when it comes to rehearsing for a show, it’s more of a refresher course than an actual learning session. My approach is to always treat each song with respect, playing them true to their record form.
What’s your favorite song to play live, and what’s the best part of working with Ace?
I’d have to say that my favorite song to play live is “Detroit Rock City.” While it’s not an “Ace” song per se, it is my favorite KISS song. Paul was always my favorite vocalist growing up, so getting to sing it each night is a thrill. And I absolutely love Ace’s solo in the song, and I know that it’s a real kick for Jeremy [Asbrock] to harmonize on that solo with Ace, just as it is for me to sing it. I’d say the best part of working with Ace is just the pure joy of getting to play alongside a person that was so instrumental in shaping me musically. But we all have the same musical DNA, and that DNA is KISS. Seriously, Philip [Shouse], Jeremy, and I initially became friends BECAUSE of KISS. No kidding!
What would you say to the people who call Ace “sloppy?”
Is Ace a great player? Yes. Was and is he a role model to many of today’s players and their first inspiration to pick up the guitar? Yes. Is he a musical icon? Yes. As far as “sloppy” goes, is Ace a stylist? Yes. Is he the most technically proficient player? Ace will be the first to tell you “no.” But, I will say this, having seen it night after night, first hand, Ace Frehley has the ability to squeeze more feel and emotion out of one note than many of the world’s “guitar virtuosos.” He is Ace Fucking Frehley, and you’re not.
As a fan, what are your thoughts on KISS continuing with non-original members in makeup?
Well, we all have our favorite versions of the band. Mine being the original ’70s lineup, as that is the lineup I grew up with. I also know people who didn’t discover the band until the ’80s during KISS’ non-makeup years with Bruce [Kulick] and Eric [Carr], and this is their favorite. The good news? Nobody’s wrong! Kiss fans will forever debate about what is best, but at the end of the day, we’ll all agree that we love KISS.
Can you weigh in on the use of backing tracks in the live setting?
I don’t have a problem when the backing tracks are used to enhance live performance. But when a band relies on tracks so heavily on the backing tracks that almost their entire show is a pre-recorded track, not so much. This is a huge debate, I know.
What gear are you using and why?
I am currently using Gibson and Vintage guitars. I’ve played Gibsons my entire life, and Vintage, as a brand, has recently stepped up and supplied us with several great instruments as well. As far as amps go, we’ve been using Kemper Profilers. They’re perfect for our current touring situation, give us immediate access to a wide variety of tones, and it doesn’t require carrying a physically huge backline. I can’t say enough great things about the product. I give them an A+ across the board.
What’s next for you as you move forward, Ryan?
Honestly, the plan is to keep playing all the time. And to continue to keep touring all the time. And also, there is more music to come. I can’t say much now, but I promise that I’ll elaborate more on that when the time is right. So, stay tuned. Lastly, thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone for allowing us to do what we love to do.