‘Power Chord’ Author Talks About Learning Guitar from Ace Frehley, Steve Vai
While many of us might have grown up with posters of our favorite guitar heroes on the wall, Thomas Scott McKenzie took the basic idea of being a fan and went one step further. He set out on a journey to meet and interview each of his six string influences. Indulging his frustrated inner guitar player, McKenzie sought advice from each of his subjects while interviewing them to get tips on how he could improve as a player.
McKenzie’s travels and personal exploration are the subject of his new book, 'Power Chord: One Man’s Ear-Splitting Quest To Find His Guitar Heroes.’ A wide range of guitarists spoke with McKenzie for the book, including members of Kiss, both past and present, Steve Vai, Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest and Def Leppard’s Phil Collen, to name a few.
‘Power Chord’ presents an interesting fly-on-the-wall view into the worlds of some of hard rock and heavy metal’s greatest axe masters and what they’ve learned through their own life experiences. Reading the stories within ‘Power Chord’ brings a new appreciation for the investment each musician has made in order to get where they are today.
We recently spoke with McKenzie to get the inside track on ‘Power Chord’ and we were also curious to find out if he had become a true guitar master as a result of his experiences.
You know how many music books are out there and they come in all shapes and sizes and topics. From your side of things, what was the catalyst for this book and what was it that made you feel like you had something unique that people would enjoy reading?
What’s interesting is that when I started working on ‘Power Chord,’ it took a long time to finish. So when I started it, the main impetus that I had was that I was tired of hairspray jokes and tired of spandex jokes and I wanted to show [in regards to the] musicians of heavy metal and ‘80s metal, I wanted to show how hard they worked and what dedication they had to their craft.
It was hard, when I originally started pitching the book, the answer was that “metalheads don’t read books.” Of course now, just in the last couple of years, it’s like everybody with a Marshall amp stack has a best seller. So publishing has changed dramatically since then, but really the catalyst was trying to honor the musicians who had made such a difference in my life and so many others.
What do you think was the hook with your book that finally got someone to bite and put it out?
Well I think the fact that I’m just a prototypical fan. But I’ve heard from so many readers, I’ve had so many people who have told me, “I am you!” Most of the books that are on the market are from guys who are at Rolling Stone or they’re at really high-powered publications, so they get unlimited access. They can pick the phone and call Eddie Van Halen or one thing or another. I was just a fan, just trying to meet these guys anyway that I could, by hook or by crook. One friend put it to me that I was like a groupie but I didn’t have boobs. What was I going to offer them? How do I get to them? I think that’s the voice that’s different here is that it’s a fan’s journey through this genre of music.
We can see that. That makes a lot of sense, for sure. It achieves a unique balance of weaving these stories together with stuff from your own personal life, as it relates, without feeling self-indulgent. It has a really nice flow.
I appreciate that. One of the things that I tried to do also that I had in the back of my mind, was I wanted to, hopefully if I was successful, to write a book that would appeal to people who weren’t hardcore fans of this genre. On one level, the book is simply about meeting whoever hung on your walls when you were a teenager. For me, that happened to be hard rock and heavy metal guitar players.
But I wanted it to be that [experience that] if you were 12 years old, you had a poster of Wade Boggs on your wall, you could relate. You know, what would it be like to now meet Wade Boggs as an adult? So my goal was to try to do justice to the music and try to represent the music, but also write it in such a way that you don’t have to be an obsessive music fan geek to be able to enjoy the book.
There’s definitely an educational bent to how you’re approaching each of these musicians. Because you are a fan and you had that goal to meet some of these people, did you have to make an attempt to keep it from crossing over into the “idol worship” kind of thing?
When I interacted with them and I laugh about this in ‘Power Chord,’ no matter how professional and detached and journalistic I tried to be, I still reverted like a 10-year-old kid, every time I would get into some guitar player’s presence. You know, when Phil Collen of Def Leppard is playing 10-feet away from me and he’s doing the solo to ‘Photograph,’ I had to turn my head, because I’m suddenly a 10-year-old. I’d like to think that that’s one of the things that the musicians enjoyed. I’d like to think that they got a kick out of the fact that I was an unabashed fan - I wasn’t just some jaded New York journalist.
Now, you can go too far - clearly, you can slobber over somebody to the point where it’s annoying. You don’t want to be literally too much of a fan where you’re just wasting their time and that kind of thing. So I was very conscious of trying to be a professional journalist about it. But I’m under no illusions that I completely hid my inner fan. I’m sure they saw that and they know that.
Various members of Kiss make their way into this book, including Ace Frehley, who is really high up on your list. You’ve had encounters with Ace now. How did the man behind the music measure up once you finally met him?
He’s very cool. He’s very nonplussed. He’s got what I consider a very stereotypical New York attitude of where, I talked to him about (a) song on his new solo record, the song is called ‘Change the World.’ There are lyrics in there that say “when I woke up this morning/ I thought I could change the world” and I asked him what I thought was a pretty deep and introspective question.
I said, “Did you ever stop to think about the fact that you did? For so many music fans, you did change the world,” and he just goes, “Eh, yeah, I guess so.” He’s not somebody who really takes a whole lot of credit. He’s very matter of fact, but it was very cool getting to talk to him and hear this voice that I’ve heard for decades on record and then you’re hearing it talk to you and use your name - that was very cool.
As a card-carrying member of the Kiss army, where do you stand with the current lineup?
[Laughs] You know, I got into a good natured radio argument with a station in Rockford, Illinois earlier this week. I’m not as fanatical about it as a lot of Kiss fans are. And the DJ at this station, he is - he’s somebody that’s totally fanatical. I think it’s because I’ve spent time with both Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer and they’re good guys and I respect the work that Tommy Thayer did, just doing whatever was asked of him, no matter how cool or uncool it might have been. So I think that from a blue collar kind of perspective, I respect that, so I think that softens me a bit on the idea of him being in makeup. It’s not how I would prefer to do it, but I’m not violent on the issue like some guys are.
Are you still paying attention to what they’re doing? Like, are you buying the hype about how good this new Kiss record supposedly is?
Oh yeah. What I’ve heard behind the scenes is that it’s literally that good. I did like ‘Sonic Boom’ and what I’m hearing from people in the organization and stuff is that it’s really that good. Let’s be honest, they’re not going to unseat Rihanna or the Jonas Brothers or whoever. I think Kiss has their fans and those fans are going to be loyal forever. But I think from what I understand, those fans will be happy with ‘Monster.’
Your career has been uniquely paired with the desire to educate yourself along the way. How would you describe yourself at this point as a guitarist?
Oh, I’m still incredibly rudimentary. But I certainly have an even greater appreciation of what these guys do now. Because you may acknowledge that it’s hard to cook a souffle or something, but until you have 10 of them fall on you in the oven - once that happens, then you really do understand what chefs can do. The same thing is true here. When I struggle with just a couple of chords and you see these guys on-stage, doing what they’re doing, I’d say that my skill level is rudimentary to remedial at best, but it’s only heightened my appreciation of what the heroes can do.
So is there ultimately hope for Scott as a guitar player? Is this going to come around?
[Laughs] Well, I can goof around in the basement enough now to where I can entertain myself. And whenever I get frustrated, there’s always the headphones, there’s always the guitar heroes themselves, like Ace Frehley and Steve Vai and John 5 and Stacey Blades and people like that which are in the book.