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Love him or hate him, Gene Simmons has probably become one of the most high-profile ambassadors of electric bass since Kiss released its self-titled debut album in 1974. While his larger-than-life, demonic imagery often overshadows his musicality, the self-ascribed God of Thunder has contributed some now-classic bass lines to the rock and roll canon. Whether it’s the devilishly memorable riffing during the verses on “Detroit Rock City,” or the crafty, walking bass lines in “Strutter” and “Rock and Roll All Nite,” or the sheer distorted aggression of “God of Thunder” and “War Machine,” Simmons has clearly carved out a voice for himself that is uniquely his own. 

Recently, Simmons teamed up with Gibson to release the Thunderbird G² (pronounced “G squared”) signature bass, which received its worldwide soft launch at the “Kiss 2020 Goodbye” PPV concert in Dubai on New Year’s Eve (incidentally, in epic Kiss fashion, the concert broke two Guinness World Records for pyrotechnics). The Gibson G² was officially unveiled during the virtual winter NAMM show this past January. 

The story of how this partnership came to be, according to Simmons, is that Cesar Gueikian, Gibson's Chief Merchant Officer, contacted him out of the blue. “He said, ‘Listen, I’m a big fan, I love guitars, I love Gibson; we’re aware that you played Gibson in the early years, and we’d like to rekindle that relationship,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘Ok, but I’m not really looking for a full-page ad in Bass Player magazine. It’s not what I do.’ With most of these full-page ads, by other bass players, you don’t have a fucking clue who they are or what band they play in—the name of the band is Killswitch? Never heard of ’em. So, those pages mean nothing to me. I don’t mean to be dismissive; I just mean it’s become commonplace.” In other words, Simmons doesn’t necessarily need the exposure endorsements, and by extension full-page ads, commonly afford other artists. It’s one of the perks of being a household name. “I’m much more interested in making the fans happy and proud, so that if they get one of the G² instruments, they not only will be proud of the way it looks, but also the way it sounds.”

Reached at his Los Angeles home, Simmons gave us the scoop on his signature instrument, his new partnership with Gibson, and some thoughts on playing bass.

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I was surprised that you didn’t come out with a Grabber or Ripper signature bass, since that’s the Gibson I most associate you with, from the first Kiss Alive album cover.

The body shapes have varied [throughout my career] from the little Les Paul Jr. type of double-horned bass that I designed and built for myself—the original LoBue bass—to the Gibsons, the Grabber, and the Ripper. I also played Pedulla and Spector, and then there’s the Axe, which looks completely different than any other instrument out there, and the Punisher looks different as well. At the end of the day, my prerequisite is, it’s got to sound like a good kick in the nuts feels—take no prisoners, not a lot of talking, as soon as you plug in you go, “Okay, I give up. I don’t want to fight.” I’m straightahead down the line—as soon as you hear something, it’s got to sound great. The other thing is, it’s got to look cool. So, Gibson is about as cool as you get.

I understand you played the very first Gibson Thunderbird G² New Year's Eve in Dubai?

Yeah. You can Google and Shmoogle it. You can see the full show on there, which, by the way, was the largest party on the planet. We had the Guinness Book of Records there—recorded the largest pyro show in, I don’t know, since Krakatoa. It truly went beyond the limit. And there were a few people in the audience, a few thousand, but around the world, hundreds of millions of people saw this thing.

G² Thunderbird Bass in Ebony with Silver

 Thunderbird Bass in Ebony with Silver

So it’s the Thunderbird G²? Are there going to be any variations on the Thunderbird-style we saw on PPV?

Initially there are two colors—one is kind of a blood red. There’s also going to be a Flying-V bass. All the instruments will be available in left hand as well because that’s an underserved area. And there will be different variations, like guitar versions that are going to sound as good as anything—it’ll be the most fun you’ll be able to have with your pants on, pardon the jail talk. The other thing is that there’s going to be a limited number of collector’s items, like a guitar-bass double-neck, and I intend to make sure I get the very first one. Everybody's going to want that one.

G² Thunderbird Bass in Ebony with Blood Red

 Thunderbird Bass in Ebony with Blood Red

Do the basses have active electronics or passive, or will there be variations available as well?

I have no idea. I always love talking with mechanics. I drive my truck because I know how to drive it. I can get from one place to another, then the guy lifts the hood and starts talking to me about the engine and I go, “What the fuck are you talking about?” All you know is if it looks good to your eyes and if it sounds great to your ears. How you get there, who cares? Round wound, flat wound, this, that—you don’t care. The only thing you care about is what it sounds like. I’ve used humbuckers and EMGs and this and that, but it’s always a combination of things—the kind of wood, how thick it is, those areas. The algorithm and the arithmetic of the bridge compared to how long the strings are against that body…

There are so many variables.

It reminds me of a Phil Collins story. Phil Collins got worldwide fame and all that because in the [sings] “I can see it comin’ in the air tonight, hold on,” song, the drums come in [sings famous Collins drum fill]. And he played those drums, but he also produced it. So this drum magazine said, “Since we’re in the studio, Phil Collins, which microphone combinations did you use and how did you know where to put them?” And he says, “I’ll show you.” And so he took some microphones that were around—he didn't seem to spend any time on what [kinds of mics] they were—and he placed them a little bit away from the drums [and then played and recorded something] and then went into the control booth and said, “No, I don’t like that.” So, he went back into the studio and moved the mics around a little bit [and tried again], and that’s how he got his fucking sound. He let his ears guide him instead of a preconceived master blueprint. There ain’t no blueprint. You’ve only got to tickle your ears; you’ve got to tickle your eyes and you need a good kick in the nuts. That’s it. And how you get there? Who cares? It’s worth noting Jimmy Page will play a Danelectro or a Silvertone guitar, which are cheap guitars. But if it sounds great, who cares? They have horrible pickups, but he likes them.

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In the first part of our conversation, I feel like you clearly articulated the essence of your bass playing style (“sounds like a good kick in the nuts feels”). So, you do know what you like...

Yes, but it’s not just the sound—it’s what you do with the sound. If you're going to go for notes that are far apart, you want to make them wide, right? Maybe even put a little fart in it, “bahp, bahp,” like the beginning of “Runnin’ with the Devil,” which, by the way, I produced the original 24-track demo of the guys in the studio. You can Google it. Go to “Gene Simmons Van Halen demo” and you’ll hear it. So, that bass was through an [Ampeg] SVT amp that was turned up a little too loudly, so it was farting, but it sounded great on tape. Who cares? “That’s considered incorrect,” is what someone will likely tell you. Well yeah, but I like it, and if you listen to “Revolution” by the Beatles, in the old days, when you had the needles, before those safety valves, which kept it at a safe recording level, the needles were pinned. It was actually a distorted track [sings opening “Revolution” guitar riff]. It’s actually distorted. If you put it through an old analog meter thing, the needles would be pinned. But who cares? It sounds good. And if you listen to the vocals, [sings] “They say you want a revolution,” if you listen close enough, the voice is distorted. It’s not crystal clear. So, of course some idiot is going to go, “How’d you get that sound?” Uh, you do it until youlike it.

So, you were talking about accessories for the G². Are these accessories going to come with the basses or are they available on their own?

You’ll be able to buy them piecemeal. You’ll get the bass, you’ll get a general guitar strap, and if you want the extra special one I played with it—I actually touched it, kind of thing—yeah, you’ll be able to get all that in different variations—studded ones, lightning ones, and so on. The accessories will come separately. I can go into a 7-11 and buy a Diet Coke in a single bottle or I can buy a six-pack—up to you.

Do you foresee yourself playing this bass predominately on the next tour or will you still use your Punisher and Axe basses?

Both. Yeah, both, because different songs have different things. For instance in “Lick It Up,” I am sort of pounding away at the eighth notes the way an AC/DC song would go, or kind of like “Hot Blooded” by Foreigner. The bass is doing very little. So you want a clearer sound for that. I’m basically plodding through it. There’s some movement, but not a lot, so you want a clearer bass for that. On “War Machine,” I want an, “I'm going to kill your grandmother in front of her grandchildren” sound. You want each note to be as big as Godzilla's cock. He’s big and bad. And I’m here to tell you your girlfriend has been lying to you all these years: Size does count. It does. So, it depends on the song. Not all songs have the same prerequisite. And clearly, if you’re doing a ballad, like “Beth,” which we have played live and acoustically, well I shouldn’t use the same sound for “War Machine” as I do on “Beth,” right?

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A lot of that depends on the player too.

The way I approach bass playing is less like Motown, where you can’t really pick out the notes because they’re plucked with your finger and they’re not popped. It’s kind of a jazz bass playing thing, which is why a lot of them use Fender basses—can’t make out the notes, but it makes you feel good in your groin. I approach bass playing more like a string quartet, where the melody is up on top, then you’ve got the viola, and on the bottom, the cello has its own melodies that you can pick out. Sort of like Paul McCartney and the Beatles, or Ron Wood—a much better bass player than a guitar player. Ron Wood, great bass player on those first two Jeff Beck records, or Felix Pappalardi in Mountain—the melodic approach to bass playing instead of just rhythmic, or just a railroad track like AC/DC records, where you take the drums, they get into a groove, the bass sits on top of that and then you put the train on top of that, and all the action is up on top. In our songs, whether it’s “Rock and Roll All Nite” or “Strutter” the bass is moving around, but not necessarily the way the chords are. So, a different bass player would approach that differently, which is why bands are not all the same—they approach their instruments differently.

I’ve always appreciated your ability to have more melody in your bass lines and yet, be able to go back and forth between that and doing something as straight ahead as “Lick It Up.”

Well, Eric Clapton really, in the early days, before he started doing music for the masses, when he was with the Blues Breakers, and even in “Sunshine of Your Love,” that solo is as simple as you can get, right? Do you remember? It’s barely moving around. And he says a great solo is knowing which notes to keep out, instead of Yngwie [Malmsteen]-like, putting them in. Less is more. Memorable is best. If you can remember a solo or a bass line, they’ve done their job. It’s called memorable. A lot of records come and go, and you can’t remember what anybody played. “Oh, I like that song. Do you remember the bass line? Nope.” In fact, I took the idea that Paul McCartney’s bass lines became songs [sings opening riff to “Day Tripper”]. After that they went to E, to the seventh, suspend the four, back to the E. Those are the chords, [sings] “Got a good reason,” but the bass is the memorable part. Just like Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.” What you remember immediately is the riff—the riff is the song. 

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I think I remember you mentioning John Philip Sousa being an influence in regard to memorable riffs.

Of course. When you hear a John Philip Sousa band come in right before the circus comes to town, it makes every little kid say, “That’s it. I’m done with this boring life. I’m marching right with that marching band out of this fucked up town. I’m going to go where this music leads me.” And you march in time.

Just to get back to the G² bass, had any prototypes been sent to you before the Dubai gig?

Oh yeah, we did all that. When people buy anything, they don’t see the R&D, the research and demonstration, that goes on before it. You go in to buy a car and you go, “Yeah, I like this.” You have no idea how much work went into it. They try this, they try that, it’s not right, and before you put it out there, you’ve got to feel, “Oh, yeah, we got the goods.” The last thing I want to do is what car companies do. They put something out there, and then they recall 18,000 of them because the airbag, or the dog ate my homework, or whatever their excuses are—you want to get it right. –BM

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