Versatility Meets Virtuosity: Remembering Guitarist Bob Kulick

Header image courtesy of Head First Entertainment

By Andrew Daly
andrew@vinylwriter.com

Image courtesy of Pop Sugar

In the eyes of KISS fans, Bob Kulick often represents the best guitarist that KISS never had, but boiling such a player down to such diminutive origins wouldn’t be remotely servicing the legendary six-stringers immeasurable legacy.

When Bob Kulick passed in 2020, I intended to write this article, but for some reason, I wasn’t ready. Again, in 2021, I intended to, but the time simply wasn’t right. Looking back, I think it’s because when I thought back on Kulick, and his passing, much like Eddie Van Halen, I felt a small void, because, to me, Bob’s music, and the legacy that he left behind meant something. And now, two years on, I am finally prepared to pay tribute to one of rock and metal’s fallen, rock soldiers.

Now, when looking back at Kulick’s legacy, one can easily be taken aback by the sheer girth of his contributions to both hard rock, and heavy metal music. While Kulick never starred for any one band for any particular length of time, his multiple stops, and highly influential style, which lent itself to a myriad of monumental, and uber memorable session work tells the tale of a seminal, and prodigious guitarist, who towered over the genre in a capacity which has left him noting short of lionized by his peers, and those who knew him best.

In 2021, Bob’s young Bruce Kulick posted a video regarding his late brother where he had the following to say:

“I was always proud of his ambition to make it in the music business. Looking back now at his accomplishments and the list of artists he worked with, he did fulfill his dream. He collected everything from every tour, recording session, travel photos, postcards, press clippings, and anything related to his fifty-year career.”

It’s with this in mind, especially when discussing the elder Kulick’s long journey toward rock immortality, that this get’s sticky in how best to memorialize him. I still recall the sad day in 2020, when I learned of Kulick’s untimely death. Being a KISS fan, I was very aware of Bob’s contributions to the band, mostly in the form of filling in via a studio capacity when Ace Frehley was unable to fulfill his duties for one reason or another.

Today, as I did then, I find myself wistfully looking back at the first time I heard some of what I feel are KISS’ best songs in “Larger Than Life,” “Naked City,” “Down On Your Knees,” “Nowhere To Run,” “I’m a Legend Tonight,” and more. These are iconic tracks, which feature searing guitar work that easily rivals, or better anything that Frehley could have contributed to the tracks. And that is not meant to belittle Frehley, quite the contrary, it’s meant to showcase just how immense of a player Bob Kulick was, that he was seamlessly able to integrate himself into a flagship band, in place of one of the decade’s most iconic players. There are few players who could do that, and yet, Bob Kulick did so time and time again.

While it would be easy to stop there, the reality of it is that Bob Kulick’s resume is seemingly endless and choc-full of worthy stops. I could easily write three articles if I intended to cover it all, but for the sake of efficiency, I will instead touch on some of Kulick’s most memorable stops, and a few that perhaps time has mistakenly forgotten.

It would be far too easy to simply list off the bands Kulick worked with, not only that – it would be redundant as that’s been done before. Instead, I’ll go about weaving together the deep tapestry of Bob Kulick’s career through a greatest hits of sorts. What follows is what I feel to be twelve of Bob Kulick’s most hard-rocking and/or more preeminent tracks.

For some, these tracks will be new, for others, we’ll be visiting some old friends. Regardless of which camp you fall into, one thing is certain, by the end of this article you’ll have a greater, and deeper understanding of one of hard rock’s most seminal guitarists.

Sweet Sweet Funky Music” by Hookfoot (1972)

While “Sweet Funky Music does not represent Kulick at his proverbial apex, it is an early snapshot of the guitarist’s prowess. Recorded when Kulick was only twenty-two years old, “Sweet Sweet Funky Music” also features some vocal work by the guitarist as well. Overall, Hookfoot would exist for five years and manage eight releases, and Kulick would only feature on this single track, but for me at least, this track stands out among the rest, and in a sense, a legend was born.

Coney Island Baby” by Lou Reed (1975)

If you’re looking for a track to blow you away with ferocious guitar licks – “Coney Island Baby” isn’t it. As a matter of fact, the entire record ebbs more toward the soft rock side. This said, if you’re looking for a record that showcases Kulick’s versatility, Coney Island Baby is the album for you. On the whole, Kulick’s work is masterful, if not memorable, and his slide work is nothing short of sublime. This album is living proof that you do not need to light the fretboard on fire to create memorable guitar-driven music. It is here that Kulick made it known that while his talent was ample, his songsmith would always prevail.

Larger Than Life” by KISS (1977)

It goes without saying that some of Bob Kulick’s most well-known work came with rock mega-giants KISS. While Kulick’s KISStory doesn’t exactly begin here, for all intents and purposes, KISS’ Alive II represents the first cuts he laid to tape with the band. It’s worth noting that Kulick stepped in for Ace Frehley on all of Alive II’s studio tracks but “Rocket Ride.” While there are many stories of why Frehley couldn’t complete the tracks, all that matters is that in the end, Kulick delivered some searing performances, the best of which is “Larger Than Life.” For those unfamiliar, it’s a quintessential Gene Simmons track, and Kulick holds serve to Simmons’ machismo with effortless ease.

Tonight You Belong to Me” by Paul Stanley (1978)

I could have chosen this entire record as means to showcase the talents of Bob Kulick, as such, boiling it down to one track was extremely hard. Ultimately, I chose “Tonight You Belong to Me” because, if nothing else, the track is a demonstration of Bob Kulick’s latent ability to write a ballsy guitar riff. This mid-tempo rocker is a slow-burner and a low-key classic. Kulick’s tone is sensational, his pacing is off the charts, and his phrasing was tailor-made to be paired with the voice of Paul Stanley. Sure, Stanley’s songwriting is top-notch here, but if this record is a classic, it’s because Bob Kulick took it to the next level.

Breaking Away” by Balance (1981)

If the underexposed is what you’re after, then Balance will satiate your appetite, surely. While Bob Kulick admittedly spent the bulk of his career as something of a nomad, there were a few occurrences where he settled in for a pass at the “traditional” band life. For those unfamiliar, Balance was a really tight AOR band formed in the early 80s, which also featured Chuck Burgi on drums and Peppy Castro on rhythm guitar. The band was criminally forgotten as the decade wore on, but with “Breaking Away,” Balance had its brief moment in the sun. If you’ve missed this one to date – change that – it’s a quality listen.

Down On Your Knees” by KISS (1982)

The last KISS and/or KISS adjacent track on this list, and it’s a good one. Once again, KISS found itself without the services of Ace Frehley, and once again, Bob Kulick ably stepped in to lend a hand. Killers served as something of a compilation of KISS’ 70s work, but it also featured four new hard-rocking tracks meant to stand in stark contrast to the prog stylings heard on 1981’s Music from “The Elder.” I could have chosen any of the four tracks, but I personally feel that “Down On Your Knees” is the best and most direct representation of Kulick’s unmistakable tone.

Bad Attitude” by Meat Loaf (1984)

By 1984, Kulick had already spent many years as Meat Loaf’s on-again, and off-again touring guitarist, but he had never featured on a studio record. All of that changed with the release of Bad Attitude, an album that holds a cult status among Meat Loaf fans to this day. While Bad Attitude is mostly remembered as a pretty straight-ahead rock record, featuring wonderful performances by the seasoned Kulick, the guitarist’s biggest impact may well have been from a production standpoint. The album’s liner notes reveal Kulick to have had a hand in producing and/or remixing five of Bad Attitude’s nine tracks. I chose the title track simply because it’s my favorite of the bunch.

Breaking The Chains” by Skull (1991)

Another short-lived, but extremely essential underexposed gem of a band that real rock diehards might recall is Skull. Kulick assembled a high-quality cast of characters which included Bobby Rock on drums, Kjell Benner on bass, and Dennis St. James on vocals. It was with this lineup that Kulick and company hit the studio to record the band’s only album, 1991’s No Bones About It. For me, this may well be Kulick’s finest hour, as it showcases the guitarist’s full range of six-string capabilities. While the whole album rocks, and even features Kulick’s younger brother Bruce on “Guitar Comando’s” along with a few other co-writes, “Breaking The Chains” is my personal favorite. It’s an absolute rager and showcases everything that made this band great.

The Idol” by W.A.S.P. (1992)

If Bob Kulick joining Blackie Lawless and Frankie Banali for a concept album about a starcrossed would be rockstar ultimately hanging himself with his own guitar strings after being told by his parents “we have no son” seems just a touch bizarre – you’re probably not alone. But let’s take a step back, and consider that if this album wasn’t a “W.A.S.P. album,” would you feel differently? Regardless of the context, this is a true case of the old saying, “Don’t just a book by its cover,” because The Crimson Idol is a classic. Much like KISS’ Music From “The Elder,” the album was a touch misunderstood at the time, but in retrospect, it’s gained steady momentum with the passage of time. As for Kulick, his soulful, depth-laden guitar stylings paired well with Lawless’s and Banali’s glam metal lineage to form an intoxicating blend of rock that can’t quite be defined, but we still love nonetheless. And for me, “The Idol” is the best vehicle for that mysterious blend.

Cradle to the Grave” by Blackthorne (1993)

Bob Kulick was an integral part of many projects, but perhaps none before or after boasted more potential than Blackthorne. Consisting of Kulick on guitar, Frankie Banali on drums, Jimmy Waldo on keyboards, Chuck Wright on bass, and Graham Bonnet on vocals, Blackthorne’s debut record Afterlife hit shelves in 1993. On the whole, tracks such as “Cradle to the Grave” are nothing short of bone-crushing, and meet the standard one would expect from such a gifted lineup. While I enjoy this record and revisit it often, I find myself wishing they had stuck to all original tracks rather than recording classics by Balance, Skull, and Rainbow, but honestly, that’s just me nitpicking – this album rocks, and rocks hard.

Hangman’s Moon” by Murderer’s Row (1996)

Another deeply underexposed record lost to the 90s is the grungy hard rock tour de force Murderer’s Row. Released in 1996, Kulick teamed up with Giuffria and Dirty White Boy alum David Glen Eisley to craft some of the heaviest music of his long career. While the entire album absolutely smokes from start to finish, for my money, “Hangman’s Moon” will melt your face off at an especially molten rate. This album is one that fans of the genre need to hear. Aside from Skull, if you’re looking to dive deep into all things Bob Kulick, Murderer’s Row is your starting point. Period.

Not Before You” by Bob Kulick (2017)

Kulick saved some of his fiercest work for last, finally releasing an album under his own name after being in the business for fifty years. Unless some lingering tracks emerge from the vaults, it appears that 2017’s Skeleton’s in the Closet will serve as the legendary guitarist’s swan song. While the album features a stunning cast of players and some recorded versions of old favorites, my personal preference is “Not Before You,” which features Robin McAuley on vocals. As a fan of Kulick in all phases, it pains me to know that at sixty-seven years of age, Kulick still had so much to give from a musical standpoint. I suppose is either serendipitous or cruelly ironic that Kulick would wait until what would be his last record to finally record under his own name. It’s funny how life works sometimes.

Image courtesy of Bruce Kulick Twitter (official)

While history will always remember the supposed “best,” and critics will always celebrate their picks representing the “greatest,” from my vantage point, Bob Kulick stands tall amongst his peers from all angles.

I’ve made no secret of my love for KISS, and when I was growing up, I struggled to wrap my head around the idea that the original four didn’t play on every track. In my young years, I almost strictly focused on the band’s 70s era, and all things Ace Frehley. I can still recall the day that I came to find out that Bob Kulick replaced Ace on a great many studio tracks, and while at first, I was dismayed, eventually, I found myself reveling in Kulick’s unique tone and sonically disruptive style. For me, it was Bob who opened me up to the bigger picture. Aside from Frehley, and Jimmy Page, Bob Kulick was the first guitar player I remember loving for his sheer style alone.

I’ve heard a great many say that Bob Kulick was “a failure” for having never found sustained success with any given band for a long period of time. Well, to that I call bullshit. Looking back at the man’s resume, pound for pound, very few stack up to what Bob Kulick accomplished. That is to say, his mark on rock history is branded in bright red ink across the foreheads of all his detractors.

To that end, in my 2020 interview with Bruce Kulick, the guitarist reflected on his older brother’s influence on him over the years:

“It was great that my older brother Bob had played guitar first as it helped shape me. He loved rock music and it was a big part of our growing up. We challenged each other with bands we liked and did jam together into my reel to reel tape recorder! I still have those recordings. He was my hero in many ways. His courage to travel to the UK to join a band, any band, was amazing to me. I remember when he came home, after a stint with a great band, called Hookfoot (Elton John’s early backing band). He was so sad, and I told him how brave and how proud I was of him. He didn’t fail, he got an experience that was priceless.”

I can’t speak for the masses, but to me, in Bob Kulick, we saw a player with attitude, who had a big personality, and an even bigger bravado. His intense, yet versatile style allowed him to sign his axiomatic signature across scores of legendary tracks. Moreso, his resume lends itself to would-be historians of the genre, who perpetually seek out music that’s off the beaten path.

Bob Kulick was an outlier, a maverick, a renegade, and a true blue, dyed in the wool heavy metal master, whose fingers screamed up and down the fretboard with style, and pizzaz that few if any – have able been able to do since.

I leave you with this: There are a select few players in the long history of rock whom one can identify by the simple stroke of a chord and for me, Bob Kulick is one of those players. If that’s failure, I’ll take it – I’ll take Bob Kulick – all day, every day.

Image credit: Variety Magazine

Interested in learning more about the work of Bob Kulick? Hit the link below:

Be sure to dive into the full archives of Idle Chatter, by Andrew Daly, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/idle-chatter-archives/

4 thoughts on “Versatility Meets Virtuosity: Remembering Guitarist Bob Kulick

  1. Great article. I was the same in regards to not wanting to believe Ace wasn’t playing on some of the studio tracks but as time went on, started to appreciate the different feel. To this day I’ll never understand why Paul’s solo album isn’t more highly regarded. Never far from my playlist and that’s down to Bob, I’m sure. Was lucky enough to see him guest with Kiss tribute at the Cavern in Liverpool a few years back..coolest night ever!

    1. Yes! Bob was a fantastic guitarist, and one with an immense and distinctive tone, and feel. Paul’s solo record is tremendous, and that’s in no small part to the work of Bob Kulick. So happy you enjoyed the article. Cheers.

    1. Thank you, Sean. I appreciate you taking the time, and I am glad you agree. Bob was a legend, and he deserves all the respect.

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