From Broadway to Blondie: an axeman rocking across the ages
Getting to the pro circuit takes years of hard work, mostly in sweaty bars, but, sometimes, the road that takes you there can be more glamorous than others. Tommy Kessler‘s career path is certainly that way inclined, going from New York’s Blue Man Group to hit Broadway musical Rock Of Ages, before joining New Wave legends Blondie. Okay, so maybe Tommy isn’t quite your everyday guitarist, but a guy who plays so many different stages can certainly be expected to have some interesting gear.
Originally from Springboro, Ohio, Tommy moved to New York in 2005, and it wasn’t long before he joined the Blue Man Group band, playing not just guitar, but also bass, zither and the formidable Chapman Stick. Although he obtained a wealth of experience from working as part of club bands and regional musical productions, it was here that his journey truly began.
“A friend of mine had worked as the guitar tech for Night Ranger for a few shows and found out that the band’s newest guitarist, Joel Hoekstra, lived in New York,” Tommy explains. “He suggested that I look Joel up, so I left a message on Hoekstra’s MySpace page. A few months went by, and one day I got a call from him. Joel introduced himself and said he got this Off Broadway gig with Rock Of Ages. He was guitar one – lead guitar – and he had to find a sub for it. He had seen Eruption and my other Van Halen videos on YouTube, and said it was tough finding people who could play 80s-style rock and also had theater experience. He asks if I’m interested – of course I was – and then he says, “Here’s the other thing: I’m going to be out of the very first show.’”
It was a challenge Tommy was willing to accept, and before long that second guitar slot became available permanently. In fact, it was Rock Of Ages that led to Tommy’s other big booking: Blondie.
“About a year [after joining Rock Of Ages], I connected with the keyboard player for Blondie [Matt Katz-Bohen] because he was interested in subbing for me at Rock Of Ages, but he ended up going out on tour so we lost touch,” Tommy recalls. “He then called me out of the blue, asking if I was interested in playing for Blondie, because their guitar player of 15 years was moving on to other projects. It wasn’t a tough decision! I met up with Debbie [Harry, vocals] and hung out with her for a couple of hours in NYC, then went and hung out with Chris [Stein, guitar] at his house upstate, and that was it.”
Two huge gigs from out-of-the-blue phone calls? Certainly beats the usual car insurance shills. Despite having a bit of the ‘right place, right time’ about him, Tommy’s career has come from his evolution as a player and an artist. One guitarist in particular lit the fuse. “It all started when I saw Van Halen play,” Tommy enthuses. “My mom is a pianist, so I didn’t want to compete with her for the rest of my life, and Eddie sealed the deal on me wanting to play guitar. After that, I started getting into classical and then heavy metal, so Randy Rhoads took over for a couple of years, mixed in with the straightforward rock of Slash, who dominated that era. Then I got heavily into Steve Vai after hearing For The Love Of God. These days, I would do anything to meet and hang out with these guys, but most the time I’m guilty of playing Van Halen and Slash again.”
Tommy also takes things back to his roots with his choice of guitars. “These days, I’m back to the guitar that Randy and Slash introduced me to… Gibson Les Pauls!” he says. “This tour, I’ll also be bringing out a special treat that Doug Kauer built for me.”
It sounds intriguing, but Tommy’s not letting on any more. Still, the last couple of years have clearly seen a switch from the Schroeder Choppers he employed for Blondie’s 2010 tour, as shown in the rig video below (also note Matt Katz-Bohen’s amusing keytar riffing on Muse’s Uprising). More details on those amps and pedals to follow…
Tommy’s studio is a playground of amp heads but, at the moment, he finds himself caught between two heavyweights of the amp world. “I’ve been using my Soldano rig for the last few tours with Blondie but, while writing heavily in the studio for Blondie’s next album and other artists, I’ve been using my old Marshalls [an ’81 JCM800 and a ’73 Plexi 1959] and it’s like finding a familiar love again,” he reflects. “Mike [Soldano]’s stuff is amazing and built like a tank but, at the end of the day, most of my idols and the sounds I fell in love with came from a Marshall, and I can’t get away from it.”
When it comes to his pedalboard, Tommy is quick to clarify that he might be a bit hazy on the exact details, since it was built by Step Up Guitars and wired by Norton Cable, but he says he’ll give it his best shot. By his reckoning, the signal chain is something like this: Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone, Fulltone Clyde Wah, DigiTech Whammy IV (likely to soon be replaced by a V), Z.Vex Seekwah (w/ Cusack Tap Tempo mod), Pigtronix Envelope Filter, Seymour Duncan Shape Shifter, Pigtronix Aria, Line 6 DL4, Boss DD-5 (w/ external tap tempo).
When asked to choose just two favourites, Tommy names the Pigtronix Envelope Filter and Boss DD-5. “I’m a big fan of the Phase 90, which the Pigtronix Envelope Filter does a great version of, but then on the other side you get a really cool auto wah-type filter that I use on [Blondie classic] Rapture a lot, so this pedal knocked the Phase 90 out real quick,” he says. On the topic of the DD-5, Tommy makes the reasons for his allegiance clear. “I have many Boss DD-5s and I have one on all my boards. I love this pedal for many reasons, mainly because I can tap the tempo in externally before I turn the pedal on. There is no pop song that a dotted 8th-note delay doesn’t sound good on, and this is the pedal for that. Which is why it’s last – everything is in time in the end!”
That gear, not to mention playing ability, accompanies Tommy to some of the world’s biggest stages, which, of course, have played host to his favourite gigs. “My best and most memorable show would probably be headlining the Isle Of Wight in 2010,” he fondly recalls. “It was my third show with Blondie so I was a little nervous, but seeing and feeling the energy there is something else.”
With all those big gigs, you’d expect Tommy to have some real horror stories but, ever the professional, he offers a frank and realistic assessment of his life on the road. “It’s tough for me to pick a worst moment because, even on the rainiest days, I still have to look at the reality of the situation: I’m doing what I love for a living, and I’m lucky I get to be someone who has the opportunity to do that.”
Tommy tours the USA with Blondie in September; see the band’s official site for details. To keep up with Tommy’s guitar-playing adventures, visit his official website, follow him on Twitter and YouTube or like him on Facebook.