All images courtesy of Kissonline.com/Getty Images
By Andrew Daly
I’ve been a KISS fan since I was very young, and the band’s music has never really left me. I still love the group’s music as much as ever, but these days, I’ve traded in burned CDs and old mix tapes for modern Apple Music playlists, but the sentiment is still the same; when it comes to KISS, their music simply feels like home to me.
You’ll often hear about “mood music.” Well, for me, the music of KISS is “any mood music.” If I’ve had a bad day, I’ll throw on Alive! (1975) and bask in the glory of what I feel is the greatest live album of all time. It’s an instant mood elevator. If I’m tired and need to get pumped, I’ll put on Creatures of the Night (1982), AKA one of the most low-key ace-in-the-hole metal albums of the ‘80s. And I’m feeling nostalgic; I’ll throw on Psycho Circus (1998), an album that instantly brings me back to the height of my ‘90s childhood KISS obsession and one which will always be near and dear to my heart.
Now, myself and a few of my fellow writers here at VWMusic are more or less “KISS fanatics” and would definitely proudly identify as registered members of the KISS Army. As such, we’ve covered KISS pretty heavily here and will continue to.
And when it comes to KISS, as is the case with any old-school Rock band, they’re very guitar-driven. Now, we as a group have written about KISS many times; I’ve personally interviewed Bruce Kulick, Tommy Thayer, and Paul Stanley, but what I’ve never done is take the time to personally rank the many fine lead guitarists KISS has rolled out over the years.
So, today I’ve done just that. KISS Lead Guitarists Ranked will run through my personal ranking of the group’s lead guitarists. With that being said, let’s get started.
5) Mark St. John (1984)
Mark St. John may well be the most technical lead guitarist KISS ever had in its employ; however, that by no means makes him the most talented. Paul Stanley was once famously quoted as saying, “Mark had trouble putting together solos and struggled to play the same thing twice.” More so, Paul Stanley himself had to dub in parts to the songs on the band’s 1984 album Animalize (1984) in order to make the solos sound better and more cohesive.
All in all, St. John was only with the band for less than a year and was hired more out of desperation than anything else. In a time when KISS was not only still struggling to replace the irreplaceable Ace Frehley, the band also felt the pressure to find its own shredder.
The hiring of Mark St. John was a result of a band trying to keep pace with up-and-comers when what they really should have been doing was setting the pace as elder statesmen. In the end, all they really needed was a player who not only had the chops but, more importantly, could play to what the song required rather than what his ego desired. They did find that player in Bruce Kulick, who would unseat St. John as the band’s guitarist when the latter began to experience symptoms of a rare form of reactive arthritis in his hands.
While this was an unfortunate turn of events for Mark St. John, it was the beginning of a fantastic era for Bruce Kulick. More on him later. As for Mark St. John, he would go on to form White Tiger, a truly excellent ‘80s hair metal band, but one which would unfortunately flop. Sadly, Mark St. John wasn’t heard from much after this and ended up slipping into a deep drug dependence, which ultimately led to his passing at the age of 51 in 2007.
4) Vinnie Vincent (1982-1984)
Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of Vinnie Vincent‘s talent. After years of softening their sound and personal changes, which included the tremendous loss of lead guitarist, and founding member Ace Frehley, KISS found themselves at a crossroads. A new wave of energetic and hard-hitting groups, such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and more, was washing over the music scene.
If KISS was going to keep up, let alone stay relevant, they were going to have to drop the pop, disco, and prog-rock experimentation and get real heavy real fast. Enter Vinnie Vincent. Vinnie’s early credits are a bit uneven and don’t really scream out “heavy metal.” That said, his early work with Laura Nyro, and the underrated ‘70s band, Treasure is representative and worth hearing.
What really drew Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley to the young shredder was his innate ability to write a damn good song, and with six credits on the nine-track Creatures of the Night (1982), an album that was and is the band’s heaviest to date, who could really argue? Vincent would stay on with the band to tour for Creatures of the Night, and then for their next album, the also fantastic and official commercial return to form, Lick It Up (1983), which would see Vincent co-write eight of the albums ten tracks. Vinnie was also a member of the band when they officially took their famous kabuki-style makeup off and unmasked themselves to the world on MTV in 1983.
Given all of Vinnie Vincents’ success with the band, one might wonder why he’s so low on the list. For all the good that Vinnie did with KISS, and all of the success that came with his tenure, Vinnies time with the band was a tumultuous one, brought on by his generally abrasive and narcissistic personality. In early 1984, after the Lick It Up Tour had finished, Vicent was fired from KISS. It’s a classic case of what might have been, as the lineup of Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Eric Carr, and Vinnie Vincent was incredibly talented and had the potential to do a great many things.
In relatively short order, Vinnie Vincent would go on to form the Vinnie Vincent Invasion, where he would release two very good, if not infamous records, Vinnie Vincent Invasion and All Systems Go, only to see his ego do him in again. Vinnie would return to work with KISS again on 1992’s Revenge, securing two more co-writes, which turned out to be two of the record’s biggest songs in “Unholy” and “I Just Wanna,” but alas, Vinnie would quickly fall out with Simmons and Stanley again.
These days, the 70-year-old Vincent lives in seclusion in the hills of Tennessee (not kidding) and seldom comes out to play anymore. Perhaps Vinnie’s story is to be continued. It is worth noting that both Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley have been quoted as saying there is “zero chance” Vinnie takes the stage on the band’s final tour.
3) Tommy Thayer (2002-Present)
This is where it begins to get very hard for me. In truth, I’ve spent hours, even days, agonizing over the order of these next two, which should be relatively obvious for KISS fans by now. To begin, I am a huge fan of Tommy Thayer as a guitarist, and if he never took the stage as a member of KISS, I would still feel that way. Tommy Thayer’s blues-based playing is, bar none, some of the most underrated of the last forty-some-odd years and fits KISS like a glove.
Tommy’s work with his band Black ‘N Blue, a truly fantastic rock outfit that is on par with any of the names you hear slung around on various best-of lists. Tommy Thayer, for too long, has been the forgotten man in the guitar conversation, and that is something that needs to change. Aside from that, he is an A+ human being and is the single longest-tenured lead guitarist that KISS has ever employed. His consistency and dedication to his craft and the KISS catalog are truly admirable and are why I had so much trouble ranking him at only number three.
Tommy Thayer is unfairly chastised by some of the more ignorant KISS fans out there for wearing Ace Frehley’s famous spaceman makeup. First of all, the man is only doing his job, and given the chance, any other wannabe guitarist would jump to do the same. Don’t fault the man for being so talented that he was selected to fill Ace Frehley’s platform shoes; not too many could do so, remember that. Second of all, Thayer has been the lead player on three fantastic late-career KISS records, 1998’s Psycho Circus (which he ghost-played on every track except “Into the Void”), Sonic Boom (2009), and Monster (2012).
Also, of note, during the reunion tour, it was Tommy Thayer who helped Ace Frehley relearn all of his parts after rejoining the band. That’s not to say Ace is not capable, he certainly is, but Tommy’s assistance truly helped make that tour as special as it was. So, the next time you hear some loudmouth KISS fan condemning Tommy Thayer, take the time to educate them and appreciate Tommy’s immense contributions to the legacy of one of Rock music’s greatest bands.
If you’re one of his detractors, then it’s your loss. I’ve seen the man three times, and he can flat-out play. At 62 years of age, Tommy has paid his dues, and now it’s time for KISS fans to give him the credit he rightly deserves. I am looking forward to seeing Tommy do his thing again as the band’s final tour progresses.
2) Bruce Kulick (1984-1996)
I have immense love and regard for the work of Bruce Kulick, and my time spent interviewing him twice has only deepened my appreciation for his work not only with KISS but also outside of it. Bruce’s heyday with KISS was the insane musical era that was the ‘80s and into the ‘90s.
When Bruce hit the scene with the band, the rock and metal charts were packed to the gills with players who could shred up and down the fretboard, and KISS themselves had just cycled through two themselves in Vinnie Vincent and Mark St. John. At the end of the day, though, KISS was always about the song. KISS was and is a band built on meat and potatoes rock music with catchy, anthemic choruses and solos that leaned more lyrical than technical, and that’s why Bruce Kulick was perfect for KISS.
Bruce Kulick’s soulful, singular tone and innate ability to stay true to the heart of KISS classics while still making them entirely his own are just some of the qualities which make him a truly special player. Kulick’s incredibly memorable work on Animalize (1984), Asylum (1985), Crazy Nights (1987), and Hot in the Shade (1989) is some of the most consistent and altogether quality work of the decade by any rock band.
His downright vicious playing on Revenge (1992) and Carnival of Souls (1997) is some of the most intense and heavy guitar work within the band’s entire catalog. I chose Bruce as number two on my list not only for his ability but because he was a member of a version of the band which produced many KISS classics such as “Tears Are Falling,” “Crazy Nights,” “Forever,” “Domino,” and many more. Save for the classic 1970s era of the band, Bruce’s tenure with KISS was one of the group’s most commercially successful and creatively fruitful.
As a fan of the band, while I love that the ‘90s reunion happened, and I truly enjoy what the band does today, I cannot help but wonder what the lineup of Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Eric Singer, and Bruce Kulick could have done together had the reunion not happened. After his time in KISS ended, Bruce went on to form the drastically underrated band Union and also played with Eric Singers’ side project E.S.P. It is also worth noting that Bruce actually contributed most of the bass work on KISS’ 1998 album Psycho Circus, as a ghost player, of course.
These days, at the age of 68, Bruce is a member of legendary classic rock outfit Grand Funk Railroad and is still wowing fans with his amazing licks on stages across the country each year. Here’s to hoping that Bruce takes the stage with KISS one last time on this final tour before it’s all said and done.
1) Ace Frehley (1973-1982, 1996-2002)
There isn’t a whole lot I can say about Ace Frehley, AKA “The Spaceman,” that hasn’t already been said. The man is one of the guitar gods of a generation. A truly unique and transcendent player who has influenced droves upon droves of young guitarists with his frenetic and inspired playing.
Beyond his singular technical prowess, Ace is ever the showman, and at 71 years of age, to this day, there is still no other like Ace Frehley in the live setting. His experimentation and perpetual pushing of boundaries in terms of what a lead guitarist could do as a showman are easily as influential as his playing, and that’s saying a lot. The KISS stage show would not have been what it was then or what it is now if not for the wild imagination, influence, and input of “Space” Ace.
From day one, Ace absolutely and literally set the stage on fire with memorable riffs in songs such as “Parasite,” “Detroit Rock City,” and “Makin’ Love,” which stand triumphantly beside his searing solos in tracks such as “Deuce,” “Strange Ways,” “Shock Me,” and more. Ace Frehley’s God-given gift to endlessly churn out impeccable music is a huge part of what made the group’s initial ‘70s run to glory so memorable.
Listen back to Alive! (1975), and you simply cannot tell me Ace’s work on that record isn’t next level. Studio records such as Dressed to Kill (1975), Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977) are forever stamped with Ace’s indelible imprint. The group’s ‘70s and early ‘80s catalog has a certain flair to it that only Ace Frehley can bring.
Over the years, there have been many guitar players that have come and gone throughout music, but none of them are like Ace Frehley. Now, I am not sitting here today and calling Ace the greatest of all time. Without giving my opinion, that’s simply an argument for a different day or perhaps another article. That said, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Ace Frehley is a generational talent, who participated in creating truly legendary music with a truly legendary band, and when it comes to that band (KISS), Ace is simply the best that they ever had.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Ace with KISS once and as a solo artist five times. Say what you want about his crazy off-stage antics, but when it comes showtime, Ace always delivers. He always has, and he always will. These days, Ace is churning out album after album of fantastic solo work and touring the country to the delight of his adoring fans. Rumors of Ace taking the stage, at least for a show or two with KISS, continue to persist and probably will until the band does truly reach the end of the road.
– Andrew Daly (@vwmusicrocks) is the Editor-in-Chief for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at email@example.com
10 thoughts on “KISS Lead Guitarists Ranked”
Totally agree. Nice piece.
You got the order exact right. Well done.
I disagree only about the quality of four of the albums that you specifically mentioned. I think Lick It Up is very overrated (and Creatures blows it out of the water), Psycho Circus is mediocre, and Sonic Boom and Monster are terrible. The latter two are actually nothing like 70’s KISS in terms of what really matter: songwriting, creativity, musicianship, and performances. SB and M merely sort of sound like a couple of the 70’s albums, production-wise. But it’s an ear trick: the songs are contrivances.
Every single album they did until LIU was great, including lives and solos. That’s 17 in a row!
Thanks for thinking and writing about KISS!
I agree with the rankings. Ace will always be #1. Kulick is a talented guitarist who unfortunately had to play on some poor albums (plus the excellent “Revenge”). Thayer is merely adequate but dependable. Vincent is talented but let’s face it, he’s impossible to work with. St. John is, unfortunately, forgettable.
I’m not a Kiss Army member. They are a decent studio band that is awesome live. I don’t really care who was there first or the longest. Or, who is the most popular or inspired the most 14 year olds to buy a $100 Epi Les Paul. Ace and Vinnie are head and shoulders above the rest, but Vinnie is a better guitarist. Kulick and St. John are comparable. Stanley can talk shit about St. John, but 3 chord Paul can’t even begin to play a St John solo. Thayer is unimpressive and Stanley is a great front man, but isn’t even a decent rhythm player.
1-Vinnie Vincent (1982-1984)
2-Ace Frehley (1973-1982, 1996-2002)
3-Bruce Kulick (1984-1996)
4-Mark St. John (1984)
5-Tommy Thayer (2002-Present)
9-Paul Stanley (1973-Present)
Vinnie Vincent, while a decent guitar player would have to stand on Tommy Thayer’s shoulders to kiss Ace’s ass.
Sorry. Saw Black N Blue. Bored me to tears. Dressing Thayer up like Ace doesn’t make him any better. These days, KISS setlist contains 1 or 2 Thayer tunes. That says it all
As a guitar player, Thayer is a fine house painter.